The World Health Organization released the reports of its study exploring the link between mental health and economic productivity. In it, the WHO estimated that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy approximately $1 trillion each year. Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the WHO said, “We know that treatment of depression and anxiety makes good sense for health and wellbeing; this new study confirms that it makes sound economic sense too.”
As data continues to emerge, more and more employers are aware that a mentally healthy workforce is linked to lower medical costs. This can help to lower rates of absenteeism and presenteeism. For the uninitiated, absenteeism refers to an employee’s habitual or intentional absence from work. Presenteeism refers to an employee’s presence at work despite illness, injury, or another condition that results in reduced productivity. So an employee who attends work but is unable to operate at their normal levels of productivity, rather than missing work altogether, contributes to presenteeism.
According to the United States Surgeon General, one in five adults (20%) will experience a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. On top of that, approximately 15% of those affected will also experience a substance abuse disorder that co-occurs with mental illness.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that only 41% of adults in the United States living with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. From that only a third received care that NAMI deems adequate for treatment. This leaves 59% of adults suffering from mental illnesses without the medical and mental health care they require to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. Both in and outside of the workplace.
Mental Health Issues Can Cut Into Profits, Increase Costs, and Decrease Productivity
Untreated depression alone costs the U.S. economy over 44 billion dollars in absenteeism from work, amounting to over 200 million days of lost work each year, lost productivity, and direct medical treatment costs to employers. Mental health conditions are the second highest leading cause of absenteeism in the workplace, according to the American Psychiatric Foundation. Individuals who suffer from mental illnesses are at an increased risk of suffering from other chronic medical conditions. On average, adults with serious mental illnesses die 25 years earlier than other American adults. In total, mental illnesses cost the US economy $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year.
A mentally unhealthy workforce is correlated with increased medical costs and a decrease in employee productivity. However, investment in the mental health benefits and programs administered to employees does generate a high return on investment. The WHO reports that every $1 invested in increasing treatment availability and quality of care leads to a return of $4 in better health, productivity, and ability to work.
This ROI is promising, particularly for businesses plagued by chronic absenteeism and presenteeism. Beyond the enormous cost that lost earnings and profits have on the economy as a whole, mentally healthy employees are more productive, are more present at work, and can contribute meaningfully to the business as a whole.
How Mental Health Affects Employee Engagement
Employee mental health is a critical yet often overlooked aspect of overall workplace wellness. Its direct correlation with employee engagement is undeniable, impacting productivity, creativity, and the broader organizational culture.
Furthermore, a survey by Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics found that nearly 50% of respondents have left roles or foregone promotions due to mental health reasons. This exodus not only contributes to a direct loss of talent but also signifies that employees might not be fully engaged or committed if they perceive their mental well-being to be at risk.
Employee engagement is not merely about participation but also entails enthusiasm, dedication, and a sense of belonging. When employees are mentally strained or distressed, they are less likely to feel connected to their team or organization’s vision. This disconnection can stifle innovative thinking and deter them from taking initiatives or responsibilities beyond their basic tasks.
Moreover, poor mental health often leads to decreased morale and increased turnover. Colleagues witnessing their peers struggling might feel demotivated or concerned about their own well-being. This creates a cycle where low engagement further deteriorates collective mental health, and vice versa.
To foster a thriving work environment, organizations must prioritize and address the mental well-being of their employees. By doing so, businesses can not only boost employee engagement and productivity but also nurture a more inclusive, empathetic, and resilient workforce.
Creating a Mentally Healthy Environment
So, how do you make a healthy workplace to encourage the development of a healthy workforce? The American Psychiatric Foundation’s Partnership for Workplace Mental Health program recommends a thoughtful and intensive process for employers to undertake. Employers must first understand what their current health plan covers regarding mental health treatment.
Does the plan cover outpatient and inpatient care? How are employees informed about the scope of their health benefits? Are the current benefits offered sufficient to ensure employees receive an adequate level of care concerning mental illnesses? All of these questions, and more, must be thoughtfully and carefully investigated before employers can consider extending mental health coverage in their preexisting plans or adopting new policies.
With the passage of the Affordable Care Act and its incremental changes to the medical marketplace, employers who offer medical policies to their employees have more mental health coverage options than ever previously available.
1. Open Communication Channels
Openness and transparency in communication are the cornerstones of a mentally healthy workplace. Employees should feel safe to express their concerns, seek help, or discuss their mental well-being without fear of retribution. Employers can encourage this by regularly checking in on their staff, being approachable, and fostering a culture where discussing mental health isn’t stigmatized. Regular team meetings where everyone has a chance to voice their opinions or concerns can also contribute to a more transparent work environment.
2. Flexible Working Conditions
One size doesn’t fit all. This is especially true when it comes to working conditions. Recognize that everyone has unique needs and challenges. Employers should strive to provide flexibility in this area. This might mean flexible start and end times, the option for remote work, or even compressed work weeks. These accommodations can reduce stress and make it easier for employees to manage their personal and professional lives. Ultimately, this could lead to better mental health.
3. Provide Access to Professional Support
Sometimes, personal challenges require professional intervention. Employers may consider employee assistance programs to complement health policies. EAPs, like investments in mental health policies, have been shown to improve employee emotional well-being and productivity.
4. Regular Breaks and Downtime
Continuous work without breaks can be detrimental to one’s mental health. It’s essential to encourage employees to take regular intervals to rest and rejuvenate. This can mean short breaks during the day to stretch or get fresh air, and also ensuring that employees take their allotted vacation time. A rested employee is not only more productive but is also more likely to be mentally healthy.
5. Promote Work-Life Balance
While dedication to one’s job is commendable, there needs to be a balance. Overworking can lead to burnout, stress, and a plethora of other mental health issues. Employers should promote a work-life balance by setting clear boundaries. This might mean no work-related calls or emails after a certain hour or ensuring that workloads are manageable. Additionally, hosting team events or encouraging hobbies outside of work can also help employees disconnect and recharge.
6. Education and Awareness
Ignorance can often be a barrier to understanding mental health. By offering training sessions or workshops on mental health awareness, employers can equip their teams with the knowledge they need to recognize signs of mental distress. This type of education also works to destigmatize mental health conversations. This makes it easier for those in need to seek help.
While investing in the mental health of employees is certainly an economic decision, it can boost company morale and contribute positively to company culture. Employees who feel as though they are valued by their employers. Also, an employer’s investment in their employee’s mental and physical well-being can signal the value and appreciation of that employee. As a result, they are more likely to remain at that company and be productive workers for a longer period of time.
In addition, a positive company culture where employees feel valued can serve to attract and retain employees. It can also encourage productivity and attendance while strengthening leadership. In sum, healthy employees are good for business, both with respect to reduced medical costs and increased productivity.
This article was first published in 2016 but has been updated and expanded